Carl Gustav Emil Mannerheim led the Whites to victory in the Finnish Civil War, was commander-in-chief of the Finnish armed forces during the Winter War and the Continuation War, and served as President of the republic in 1944-1946. Mannerheim is one of the best-known and most respected figures in Finnish history. The readers of the newspaper Aamulehti voted Mannerheim the greatest Finn of all time.
Mannerheim was born in Askainen in Finland on fourth June 1867 into a Swedish-speaking noble family. His father was Carl Robert Mannerheim, a businessman whose ventures failed and who later moved to Paris. His mother was Hedvig Charlotta Helena von Julin, who was from a renowned family of industrialists.
Mannerheim was fourteen years old when he was sent to the cadet school in Hamina. However, he was expelled, and later entered the Russian army. He joined the Nikolaevsky Cavalry School in St. Petersburg in 1887, and graduated in 1889. He served in Poland, but was transferred to the Chevalier Guards of the Empress, stationed in St. Petersburg. In 1902, he was made Captain. Mannerheim served in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905, and was promoted to Colonel. In 1906, he left on an expedition to Central Asia and China, making his way to Peking. He returned to St. Petersburg in 1908.
Mannerheim served in the Russian army in the First World War. He first led a brigade and later the 12. Cavalry Division, being promoted to Lieutenant-General. He was awarded the highest medal of the Russian military, the Cross of St. George, in 1914.
When the Russian Revolution broke out, Mannerheim resigned from the Russian army, disliking Bolshevism intensely. He returned to Finland, which had been granted independence by the new Russian government on 6th December, 1917. This is when Mannerheim's significance to Finnish history begins.
When Mannerheim arrived back in Finland, there were 40 000 Russian troops stationed in the country, and the situation was quite unstable. The new Finnish government gave Mannerheim the task of organizing a national army and restoring law and order to the country. In 1918, the Reds took over power in southern Finland, beginning the Finnish Civil War. The government escaped to Vaasa.
The great advantage of Mannerheim's White army was their superior weapons and leadership. The jaegers had recently come back from Germany, and they provided military expertise that the Reds lacked. The culminating battle of the Civil War was fought in Tampere, a Red stronghold. The Reds were defeated. Mannerheim's victory was sealed when the German Baltic Division landed in Hanko, though Mannerheim had been against asking for German help, since he wanted to ensure Finland's independence. A victory parade was held in Helsinki on 16.5. 1918
Originally, Finland was going to be a monarchy, with a German king. When Germany was defeated in the war, this plan was abandoned and Mannerheim was appointed Regent. He signed the constitution of the Republic of Finland in July 1919. In 1919, he was a candidate in the first presidential elections in Finland, but he lost to K.J. Ståhlberg.
Between the wars, Mannerheim took on several roles as a civilian, such as working for the Finnish Red Cross. He also travelled extensively. In 1931, he was appointed head of the national defence council. In this role, he planned the defence line in Karelia, which during the Winter War was to be known as the Mannerheim line.
On 30.11. 1939, the Soviet Union attacked Finland, starting the Winter War. Mannerheim acted as commander-in-chief of the Finnish armed forces. The Mannerheim line held until February 1940. A peace agreement was signed on 12.3. 1940. The Soviet Union gained about ten per cent of Finland's land area, at a cost of about 100 000 Russians dead. The fact that Finland, which had been divided by a terrible civil war into Whites and Reds, was united against the common enemy under Mannerheim's leadership and was able to keep its independence is probably his greatest achievement.
In 1941, Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union. Having been without any allies and in an extremely precarious position after the Winter War, Finland joined the German camp and began its own attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941. This war has come to be called the Continuation War, since it was a continuation of the Winter War. Finland's goal was to regain the territories lost in the Winter War. The old border was reached and crossed. However, Mannerheim declined the German request that Finland take part in the Siege of Leningrad. This probably saved Finland from even harsher treatment that it actually got after the end of the war.
With German assistance Finland was able to put up considerable resistance to the Soviet mass attack that eventually began in 1944. To secure German support, President Risto Ryti
pledged personally not to sign a peace agreement with the Soviet Union before Germany did. This was a trick to avoid signing a treaty of alliance, which Hitler wanted. Hitler was satisfied with Ryti's personal promise. Eventually, the Soviet Union's huge numerical and material superiority meant Finland had to reach a peace agreement. Ryti resigned, and Mannerheim was chosen President. He renounced Ryti's promise to Hitler, and started negotiating peace. Finland lost about 12 per cent of its land area to the Soviet Union in the Treaty of Paris
of 1947, in which the Second World War
was officially ended. However, Finland arguably did quite well out of the peace agreement, since it was the only country on the Axis
side which was not occupied.
In 1946, Mannerheim resigned as President. He spent his retirement abroad, mostly in Switzerland. He died in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1951 at the age of 83. His funeral in Helsinki was an occasion of national mourning.
It is hardly possible to deny Mannerheim's importance to Finnish history. Ask any Finn who he or she thinks has done most for Finland, and the answer may well be Mannerheim. His victory in the Civil War and his insistence on Finnish independence from German influence surely contributed to Finland's ability to stay free from outside control during the interwar years. His leadership during the Winter War and the peace negotiations after the Continuation War were important in helping Finland remain independent. However, he can be criticised for not stopping the White terror that took place during the Civil War.
my own knowledge of Finnish history learnt at school